Duane Thomas

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For the American boxer, see Duane Thomas (boxer).
Duane Thomas
refer to caption
Thomas playing for the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI
No. 33, 47
Position: Running back
Personal information
Date of birth: (1947-06-21) June 21, 1947 (age 69)
Place of birth: Dallas, Texas
Height: 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight: 220 lb (100 kg)
Career information
High school: Dallas (TX) Lincoln
College: West Texas State
NFL Draft: 1970 / Round: 1 / Pick: 23
Career history
 * Offseason and/or practice squad member only
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Rushing yards: 2,038
Rush attempts: 453
Rushing TDs: 21
Receiving yards: 297
Receptions: 38
Player stats at NFL.com
Player stats at PFR

Duane Julius Thomas (born June 21, 1947) is a former American football running back in the National Football League for the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.[1] He played college football at West Texas State University.

Early years[edit]

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Thomas was an exceptional running back at its Lincoln High School in the mid-1960s. He continued his success at West Texas State University in Canyon, playing fullback alongside Mercury Morris, while tearing up defenses for Joe Kerbel's teams.[1]

In 1970 he played in the Coaches All-America Game.

Professional career[edit]

Dallas Cowboys (first stint)[edit]

Thomas was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round (23rd overall) of the 1970 NFL draft. As a rookie, even though he didn't start until the fifth game of the season, he led the team in rushing, while finishing eighth in the newly merged 26-team league with 803 rushing yards (second in the National Football Conference behind NFL rushing champion Larry Brown of the rival Washington Redskins) on 151 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and 5 touchdowns. At the end of the season, already being compared to Jim Brown, he was named the NFL rookie of the year.[2]

During the 1971 offseason, because of a contract dispute (he requested for his 3-year contract to be rewritten) and refusing to report to training camp, he was traded to the New England Patriots, alongside Halvor Hagen and Honor Jackson, in exchange for Carl Garrett and the Patriots' No. 1 draft choice in the 1972 NFL draft. Within a week, because of problems with the Patriots and head coach John Mazur, in an unprecedented move NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle voided part of the trade, sending Thomas and Garrett back to their original teams. The Patriots kept Hagen and Jackson in exchange for a second (#35-Robert Newhouse) and third round (possibly 1972 #64-Mike Keller) draft choices in the 1972 NFL draft. Thomas returned to the Cowboys, but decided to keep silent all season long, refusing to speak to teammates, management, and the media.

In October 1971, Thomas scored the first touchdown in the new Texas Stadium playing against the Patriots.[3] That same season, Thomas led the league in rushing and total touchdowns with eleven rushing and thirteen overall. He also was named All-Pro and led the Cowboys with 95 rushing yards and a touchdown in Dallas' first franchise Super Bowl victory, a 24–3 win over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.

Before taking part in Super Bowl VI, Thomas was asked about playing in the ultimate game. His response was: "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?". In a postgame interview following that Super Bowl, CBS television announcer Tom Brookshier noted Thomas' speed and asked him, rhetorically, "Are you that fast?" Thomas responded, "Evidently".

Thomas was reportedly voted as the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player by an overwhelming margin. Thomas, however, had boycotted the media throughout the season as well, and Larry Klein, editor of Sport, which presented the award, didn't know how Thomas would act at a banquet in New York. With this in mind Klein announced quarterback Roger Staubach as the winner.[4]

According to Hunter S. Thompson: "All he did was take the ball and run every time they called his number – which came to be more and more often, and in the Super Bowl Thomas was the whole show." (Thompson: Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72)

During the 1972 offseason he became even more isolated and insubordinate, so he was traded in early August to the San Diego Chargers in exchange for Mike Montgomery and Billy Parks.[5]

In 2004, he was inducted into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.[6]

San Diego Chargers[edit]

Thomas began his stint with the Chargers by earning a 20-day suspension for failing to report to the team, and matters escalated from there. He never played a game for the Chargers, as the team placed him on the reserve list, making him ineligible for the rest of the 1972 season.

On July 20, 1973, the Chargers traded Thomas to defending NFC champion Washington in exchange for the Redskins' first draft choice (#22-Mike Williams) in the 1975 NFL draft and their second draft choice (#46-David Hill) in 1976.[7]

Washington Redskins[edit]

Thomas played with the Washington Redskins in 1973 and 1974, rushing for a total of 442 yards. On August 13, 1975, he was waived because of conflicts with the team.[8]

The Hawaiians (WFL)[edit]

In August 1975, Thomas was signed by the The Hawaiians of the World Football League to replace an injured Calvin Hill, although the Philadelphia Bell claimed they owned Thomas negotiating rights after being released by the Washington Redskins.[1][9] He was with the team for only 1½ months and was released in early October,[10] just weeks before the league folded.

Dallas Cowboys (second stint)[edit]

On May 1, 1976, the Dallas Cowboys signed Thomas again for a comeback, but he was waived before the season started.[11]

British Columbia Lions (CFL)[edit]

Thomas signed with the British Columbia Lions in 1977 and was placed on waivers after just a couple of weeks.

Green Bay Packers (NFL)[edit]

In March 1979, Thomas was signed by the Green Bay Packers, but was waived before the season started.[12][13] He finished his NFL career with 2,038 rushing yards, 453 carries and 21 touchdowns. He also caught 38 passes for 297 yards and 3 touchdowns.


With the help of freelance sportswriter Paul Zimmerman in 1989, Thomas wrote Duane Thomas and the Fall of America's Team, a memoir of Thomas' time playing for the Dallas Cowboys. A reviewer of the book commented, "The title implies, although the text nowhere suggests, that there is a relation between the fate of running back Thomas and the decline in the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys. Thomas, when he appeared on the professional football scene in 1970, was acclaimed as an outstanding player but within two years was stigmatized as an "emotionally disturbed misfit", largely because of his periods of total silence.

Before he was out of football, Thomas got a job at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation in the Legal Department and decided to go back into football. He was called by the Green Bay Packers and went there to try out, but they used him mainly as a blocking back during that preseason and he did not make the team. In August 2008, Thomas visited the Cowboys at their training camp in Oxnard, California.

Treatment of Thomas in Coyne and Millman history[edit]

The 2010 book The Ones Who Hit the Hardest by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne[14] on the Pittsburgh Steelers and their great 1970s rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys offers a critical assessment of Thomas. They note that Thomas was highly regarded by the Cowboys when he first arrived, and that he was an avid team player who worked very hard and produced spectacular results on the field. Unfortunately an agent who Thomas contracted to look after his financial matters so he could concentrate on football, pocketed large amounts of his cash and failed to cover his bills. A looming divorce also added to the runner's woes. Thomas' sterling play however helped Dallas to Super Bowl V where they faced the Baltimore Colts. In a game marked by poor Dallas performance and turnovers, (including 10 penalties for more than 100 yards) the authors hold that Thomas fumbled in the third quarter, 2 yards shy of a touchdown, in a disputed referee call. Coach Tom Landry, the authors contend, abandoned the running game in favor of action by quarterback Craig Morton. With plenty of time remaining, the Cowboy offense stalled, and Morton threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter, dooming Dallas' chances of a win. After the lost game, Landry in public comments blamed the 3rd quarter fumble by Thomas as the reason for the loss. This embittered the running back intensely, who felt his 1,116 yards that year, and his scoring of the only Cowboy touchdown in the game deserved better.[15]

Relations deteriorated after that, state Millman and Coyne, and Thomas resented Landry's perceived lack of appreciation the following year. The pending divorce, and looming IRS audits and claims for back taxes added further pressure on the 23-year-old running back. Thomas became dissatisfied with his salary and demanded a renegotiation. The authors however note that Thomas was not the only player to run into financial difficulties or attempt to modify his contract.

"No one produced like Duane Thomas had in 1970. The evidence was incontrovertible.. Thomas understood that playing out his option was a ludicrous choice. The average career of an NFL player is less than five years. The Dallas Cowboys would get the best years of his football career and then he'd still be at the mercy of the owners and their commissioner. Thomas reconsidered their offer to extend their contract and realized that the new deal would cover his debts and alimony, but would leave him only subsistence wages. He'd be a star on the field but a lackey off of it. Sharing his personal problems with the Cowboys gave them the opportunity to punch his situation into one of their computers. It spit out the best possible deal for the organization- keeping its star running back under their thumb at the lowest price... [they] had him just where they wanted him- insecure about his position and saddled with debt. Some of the greatest players in the history of professional football- Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly, Rayfield Wright – had faced the same circumstances before Thomas had. They had cowered and taken the Cowboy contract extensions."[16]

Thomas attempted to get football great Jim Brown to intervene on his behalf to no avail. In 1971, his bitterness exploded in a training camp press conference, in which he dared to rail against Landry and management. Rumors spread through training camp that Thomas and the Black Muslims were in sync to kidnap Tex Schramm, after observers noted a small dark man "with only one name" shadowing Thomas. The controversy churned with his trade to the Patriots and the subsequent return to the Cowboys. Thomas had alienated many of his teammates, nevertheless Landry generously took him back on the special teams where he performed well, and eased him back into the running back slot. His performance was better than ever, although he refused to speak to reporters (who dubbed him 'The Sphinx") or to shake hands with some teammates after making outstanding plays. His quality play however culminated in an excellent Super Bowl performance and likely MVP award, but this was denied due to his previous conduct. Millman and Coyne quote some Dallas players who still admired Thomas for standing up to management. Despite the victory, Thomas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1972, who later traded him to the Washington Redskins in 1973. The Cowboys did not win another Super Bowl until the coming of another running sensation, one Tony Dorsett.[17] Dorsett claims that late one night early in his career he was at a house party when the doorbell rang. There, outside in the darkness stood the spectral figure of Duane Thomas. The ex-Cowboy favorite and the new sensation stared at one another for a long moment. Dorsett gestured, but no words were exchanged, only a brief nod, one running back to another. Then Thomas began to slowly melt back into the night, as mysteriously as he had come. Symbolically, it seemed, the torch had passed.[17] As to his undoubted talent, Millman and Coyne maintain that Cowboy coach Landry learned to manage gifted players better, without heavy micro-management, as a result of Duane Thomas: "Landry had learned the hard Lesson with Duane Thomas. Sometimes you have to leave the gifted alone."[17]


  1. ^ a b c Aiello, Greg (June 11, 1976). "New Duane Thomas: Finally I know where I'm going". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida. (Los Angeles Times / Washington Post). p. 3F. 
  2. ^ "Duane Thomas Unhappy With 3 Year Contract". Retrieved February 19, 2016. 
  3. ^ "Pats Routed". Retrieved February 19, 2016. 
  4. ^ McGinn, Bob (2009). The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. Minneapolis: MVP Books. ISBN 978-0-7603-3651-9. 
  5. ^ "Cowboys trade Duane Thomas". Victoria Advocate. Texas. Associated Press. August 2, 1972. p. 1B. 
  6. ^ "Ex-Cowboy Duane Thomas 'found peace in the game'". Retrieved February 19, 2016. 
  7. ^ Reid, Ron (August 27, 1973). "Staring and starring". Sports Illustrated. p. 16. 
  8. ^ "Redskins release Duane Thomas". Pittsburgh Press. UPI. August 14, 1975. p. 31. 
  9. ^ "Duane Thomas playing for Hawaiians". Tuscaloosa News. Alabama. Associated Press. August 25, 1975. p. 11. 
  10. ^ "Thomas refuses to take cut". St. Petersburg Independent. Florida. Associated Press. October 10, 1975. p. 2C. 
  11. ^ "Cowboys Sign Duane Thomas". Retrieved February 19, 2016. 
  12. ^ "Green Bay Packers cut Duane Thomas". Lakeland Ledger. Florida. August 21, 1979. p. 4D. 
  13. ^ "Thomas cut as Packers trim roster". Milwaukee Sentinel. August 21, 1979. p. 1, part 2. 
  14. ^ The Ones Who Hit the Hardest" by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne, 2010, Gotham Books, pg 102-204
  15. ^ Millmam and Coyne 104-105
  16. ^ Millman and COyne 110-112
  17. ^ a b c Millman and Coyne, 115-117

External links[edit]